Monday, April 17, 2006

Race Report: Earthday Half Marathon

(Check out photos on the right side bar of the blog homepage!)

I woke up 2 minutes before the alarm, my internal clock ready to get on with it at 5:58 am. The gun was at 9:00am, but the race destination is about a 45 minute drive, so this allowed me plenty of time for a quick shower, some breakfast, and a quiet morning before the rest of the house woke up (my wife and her parents, visiting for the weekend, were coming to cheer me on, along with my friend Mike).

The day was a racing systems check; details were important. When and what I ate for breakfast. What I wore. How and when I hydrated, and ate on the course. Some new things this day that were different from last race season, all applicable to Ironman strategies: My intensive carbo-load dinner was 2 nights before, rather than the night before, race day. This hopefully would allow more time for those stores to settle in for use on race day than a crash meal the night before. The day before the race I ate normally, but a higher carbohydrate level than normal. I hydrated with water and Gatorade the day before. I had a bit lighter breakfast than normal; A bowl of oatmeal and a Boost, splashed down with some Gatorade. About 500 calories and 80g of carbs. I intend to double the Boost for Ironman, but I'd like to use breakfast to top off my fuel stores, rather than add to them - this should mean I'll have a cleaner slate once the race starts, and so I'll know as the race proceeds that my nutrition is accurate to the moment, rather than relying on hold-over benefits too much from earlier meals. I also added about 300 more calories with caffeinated coffee (quitting drinking it an hour an a half before the gun). I'm not a coffee drinker or a caffeine drinker, but a few months ago during some crazy work deadlines I went and ordered a Turtle Mocha from Caribou and boy howdy I was flying, and pledged to experiment with it during racing season. Sipping on the coffee - I drank probably half or 3/4 of it - it was a pleasant, calming thing that morning. I can't be sure what, if any, benefits the caffeine had on me that day, but it didn't hurt, so I'll try it again for the next race, too. Finally, two new pieces of apparel; unless I'm wearing a tri-suit, which I do for all short-course races, I wear Under Armour compression shorts under my biking or running shorts. This time I tried the Long model, so the shorts went to just above my knee, keeping my hamstrings and quads compressed and warm all day. I was really comfortable in these, and they earned their way into Ironman. I also tried a Headsweat - basically a high performance material bandana around my head - usually I take off my cap and use it to wipe my sweaty head down as the day gets warmer. The Headsweat can be worn under my cycling helmet and running cap, and on really hot days I can wet it down to keep me cool. So I wanted to see that it would perform to expectations. It did, and will be along for the ride from here on out. So, as important as my strategies was the opportunity to put some new ideas to a real word test - if I puke up coffee at mile 5, then I'm no worse for it, having learned it now rather than later!

I slept really well the night before, which was the first success of the race. I'm not a nervous person, but inevitably before races - of even little significance - I spend the night before pretty sleepless and the morning with an irritable stomach with nervous energy. I really want to learn to control that, and tried to keep the attitude all morning that this was just an organized training day. I'd say it out loud, to myself, to anybody who was listening, just wanting to reinforce it. Nothing to be nervous about, no different than any other long run. I still fought with my stomach in the morning, but generally felt okay - I didn't take myself or the day too seriously, and looked forward to racing.

We arrived around 8:15 to the starting line, which was near a dorm building on the campus of St. Cloud State University. With plenty of time, I chatted with my family and friend while I casually got organized, shedding my civilian clothes and getting into my superhero clothes. I put on my heart rate monitor and found my heart was racing - 90bpm, when normal pre-run rest is around 75bpm; I was allowing the nervous energy to physically affect me, and needed to check that. 15 minutes later I said goodbye, received my good lucks, and went to keep warm and limber for the half hour before the start.

The starting line was about a block away from the dorm building, and I saw other runners milling around the building, so I headed in there. It was a perfect environment for me to subject my keeping-calm skills - full of nervous, chatty, stretching, hopping, bouncing athletes. In the past I've tended to let all this energy just sponge my own away, and it gets me nervous and hopped up before there's anything to be hopped up about. I need to learn to control this, so I wanted to be around it. I found a dark corner, sat down, and put my head down. I visualized a strong race, the way I wanted it to go, but I didn't get too Jedi mind control about it; I wanted to stay relaxed. I found my mind drifting to total irrelevance, and I considered that a good thing. A check of my watch before I left the building, and my heart rate was down to about 78. Perfect.

It was a remarkably beautiful Minnesota spring morning - no wind, lots of sun, and already about 60 degrees. I wore black intentionally, thinking I'd appreciate the sun absorption on a cool spring morning. I walked to the starting gate and made my way to the rear of the pack, where I saw my friends Ben and Sara. They were just here for a fun run, heading to Jamaica the next morning. They had the right energy, and I was glad to be among them while all these people did 20 yard sprints and elaborate stretching/lunging/hopping maneuvers around us. The race director got on the microphone to say a few things, but he was so far away at the starting mat that we heard none of what he said. I felt relaxed and calm, and was actually in mid-sentence when I heard the gun go off. I wished Ben and Sara the best of luck and walked the rest of the way back to the very very rear of the starting pack.

Here's why I like to start at the rear of the starting pack during a running race. First, it's at least a quarter mile, even a half mile (at the Marathon) between the starting mats and the end of the pack. I don't understand people who run between their starting positions and the starting mat. It's a waste of energy, and there's nothing to be gained from it at all. Even if the gun has sounded, your race doesn't start until you cross the mat. Second, it's harder to "run your race" when you're caught in the wave that the front or middle of the pack generates. You get caught in the flow and before you know it you're running a 7 minute mile in the first mile, for no other reason than the guys around you are. Poor race strategy. Last, mentally and logistically, I like knowing that every single person who finished behind me is somebody I passed. Mentally because this is positive reinforcement, but more importantly, if I pass a runner, and then see him again, I know I'm slipping somewhere. It's a good system of checks and balances for me.

So, I casually walked with the mass ahead of me to the starting mat, and started my race. I wanted to find a 9:30 pace for the first half hour and just happily sit there. About 100 yards into the race I passed my family, and feigned exhaustion and asking them if it was over yet. Before the race Amy's Dad and I worked out a plan where he'd dress like me and we'd tag-team the race. Iris, I'm sure this mental image is as amusing to you. :) Mike snapped some pictures and I high-fived my wife, then was out there alone for the next 4 miles or so.

The first 3 miles of any road race are especially cluttered. It's just a massive hunk of humanity, one single moving organism. I tried to find my own lane, but inevitably there are the sections where I'm suddenly boxed in at a 10:00 pace (a disadvantage of starting at the end of the pack), or making these wide lateral maneuvers to escape a long line of slow-pokes just ahead, or whatever. I felt really good - strong and relaxed, consistently having to slow down to keep my pace. The day was not a demonstration in how fast I can run. I had a strategy, and the plan was to execute the strategy as perfectly as possible. This mean discipline to my pace and my nutritional efforts.

There were several downhill sections in the first third of the race, and I didn't fight these; just let gravity do it's thing. I'd find myself racing down, passing runner after runner, before settling back into my rhythm once the terrain had leveled off. I'm a solitary runner, and I know that part of the whole joy and purpose of running for many people are the social aspects. Still, I can't understand how chatty people are during races. Some are talking about useful things like pace or the hill coming up on the next mile, but countless others are gossiping, or talking about their plans tonight, or the jerk at work, or whatever. I know there are the weekend warriors out there, for whom these races are like a game of golf, and I respect that and wish them well - but I don't understand it, and it tends to annoy me when I'm trying to work. I similarly don't understand the people plugged into iPods during the whole race. First off, isn't this illegal? But mostly, it seems contrary to the spirit of the thing. I'm all for being a lone ranger out there, like me. But when you put on headphones...I don't know. It seems like then you might just as well have been on the treadmill all morning instead of in a race. I guess I'm just a grouchy old man now at 32. :)

I took a swig of water from my Fuel Belt every 10 minutes, as planned, as executed in training. Also, as it was a warm day and getting warmer, I hydrated at every aid station as well - I tend to melt down in the heat, so I'd hydrate all I could. My watch, which is generally freakishly accurate, indicated I was passing the miles about .15 miles BEFORE the mile markers passed by, so I tried to mentally adjust to the difference. The first half hour went by with (according to the watch) 3.32 miles passed, at a pace of 9:02. Nearly 30 seconds fast, but some of that was artificial speed from the downhills. I never felt that fast, though, trying to stick with the plan.

The second half hour, then, and I sped up to a 9:00 pace. The course got a bit hillier, then had a 180 degree turnaround at the bottom of a hill. As I approached I saw my family again at the bottom, and clapped with them to indicate that I was okay, having a relaxed time, all was well. As I climbed the other side, just near the top of the hill I glimpsed Sara heading down, going into the turnaround. She looked strong, and I hoped she was having a good day.

We swept into the downtown area, and now the chatters were talking about how much this looked like Fargo, and how they had plans to race that marathon again later this year, and Julie said she would too, but only if she didn't do well at some other race, and the know-it-all in the bunch was telling the rest of them how the weather is in Fargo in the fall, and how to prepare for it, and I decided instead I'd concentrate on this race so I shifted a gear and went the hell around them.

As we approached mile 6 we ran through part of the SCSU campus, and finally wound ourselves back under the course via a significant underpass. All downhill, for about .25 miles. I was surprised how many runners leaned back, slowing down and absorbing the hill in their legs instead of leaning forward, increasing leg turnover, and just going into a controlled fall. I flew down the hill, and passed my family again (a short walk for them from their last point to this), my wife cheering on the side (I think I was able to point to her), and Mike and my father-in-law on the bridge above. I finished the second half hour 6.83 miles into the race, with the 2nd "interval" pace at 8:34 - again, almost 30 seconds ahead of schedule, and again owed much to the downhills. I felt good, but hoped I wouldn't pay for the increased speed later. The only way I could have realistically backed off from the pace would have been to slow down and absorb the shock of the downhills on my legs...and that's counter productive to everything, so I took it as it came.

I started hydrating with calories now instead of water, drinking from my belt every 10 minutes and Gatorade at each aid station. I took stock of the day so far, nearly half way through the race; so far, so good. I was feeling strong, my heart rate was in the 150s. I wasn't hungry or thirsty, and was hydrating on schedule. I wasn't sweating too bad, but was starting to get pretty warm - the temps had reached the mid 70's already, and I wished now that my black shirt was white. I wasn't feeling too fatigued, was mentally alert, and had so far avoided any crises. It's a rarity when I can say in a race that - so far, things were going according to plan.

At mile 7 or so we paid for all this downhill action with a long ascent. I took it easy with pumping arms and short footstrikes, and got up the hill with no drama. On the other side, though, when it was level, my heart rate was staying up and not coming back down. I slowed down a bit from what was now an intended 8:30 pace and waited for the heart rate to slow down with me, but when it hadn't by mile 8 I made the strategic decision to walk and let it come back down. I pulled off, walked at a brisk 13:00 pace, and enjoyed a GU and what was left of my water. I committed to walking only .15 miles, and my heart rate came back down to the mid 140's. This was another important part of my execution; walking is a tactic, not a survival skill. I would only walk when it would yield higher returns for me in the long run, and not because I "needed" to, or was tired and lazy; if I was walking out of need, than there was poor planning or execution involved somewhere. Particularly when it's a bad day on the race course, walking becomes too easy to do - you do it once, it's easy to do again. "Oh, only a little while". And before you know it you've walked a combined mile and tacked 15 minutes onto your time (see also: Chris At The 2005 Marathon). After my .15 miles were up, I started right up in gear, and was happy to feel fresh and fine, easily finding my 8:30 pace again and better off for the break.

By mile 9, I had made my way up in the field - and the distance had predicated by now - that all the chatters were somewhere else. Now I was among the noticeably more fit people, and it was all business. The only sound was the marching of footfalls, and rhythm of breathing. No discussion. I loved it. Mile 10.3 passed by, ticking off my third half hour interval. I'd maintained an 8:37 pace - right on schedule.

I recognized a bobbing blond ponytail in front of me from a mile or two back, and realized that I'd been on the wheel of this woman for 2 miles or so. I checked my watch and she was right on my pace, so I decided to stick with her. If she got too far ahead, I sped up. I stayed on her wheel through mile 11, when she slowed to around a 9:10 pace and I went around her. At 11.5, my heart rate high again, I went back to a short .15 mile walk to prepare to finish up strong.

The heat was starting to get to me from then on out. Not in a significant way, but if this were a marathon I would have needed to restrategize a bit. I was starting to sweat heavier, was wanting to hydrate more and more, and my heart rate was climbing more quickly. We had, at around mile 12, one last long incline, and it was liberating to pass all the people slowing, out of breath, to stop and walk. I felt good going uphill, even with the heart rate climbing - from here to the finish, there would be no stopping. At 12.5, coming off the uphill and with the day and heat setting in, my legs started to fatigue a bit. I focused on quick cadence, turning my legs around quickly, even when they started to feel thick with fatigue. I passed a few runners and was passed by a few who were finishing strong - good for them, I love that. According to my watch, I passed 13.1 miles in 1:55:43. But I still had a third of a mile to go on the course, so as I rounded the last turn heading into the chute, I saw my friend and my in-laws cheering me in. I made the turn, then heard my wife's voice further down (funny how, in all that noise, you hear the voices and sound frequencies that matter). With 200 yards to go I threw it into an all out sprint, giving it everything I had left in the tank, clipping at a 7:50 pace. I finished strong and proud.

If you go by my watch, I finished 13.1 miles in 1:55:43, giving me a final pace of 8:50/mile. This is valuable only in that, if you can assume consistency between this and my other tracked workouts/mileage on the same watch, it's an unofficial Personal Record - my last fastest being around 9:00/mile. If you consider the race distance, than according to my watch I went 13.43 miles in 1:58:16, which is a pace of 9:02/mile. But none of that is as important as the official race time: 13.1 miles in 1:58:14, yielding a 9:02/mile. I took 69/106 runners in my division, an 450/694 runners overall.

But, that's all pretty unimportant anyway, as it bears very little to the real world execution of an Ironman marathon leg. What IS important is that things went almost perfectly to what I'd planned. Nearly flawlessly in fact. I executed my strategy as I intended. I had no mental, physical, or nutritional breakdowns or meltdowns. I anticipated a race finish of around a 9:00/mile pace - not as a goal, but as a realistic expectation of potential for the day barring the unforeseen, and was spot on. I intended to "slow down least", and if you consider that my 1st interval time was 9:02, that's the same as my race pace, so in fact I didn't slow down at all! I avoided the temptation to "go all out" at some point and risk blowing up my legs for a pointlessly faster time, which meant I was able to get on my bike Sunday for a 52 mile ride with no suffering for the race the day before. All in all, a great training race, an important part of the process, and I'm in great shape going into the start of triathlon season in May. My next test at this distance - a far more critical test - is a Half Ironman in June. We'll see what improvements can be made between now and then.

What would I do differently? Not a lot, actually. I'd have worn white, and I need to consider that I'll feel probably 15-20 degrees warmer than it is out there. I might have brought some sponges with me to cool down later in the race, when I started to feel the effects of the heat on my heart rate. Other than that, I couldn't be more pleased with the day, and these are technical details that aren't involved in the specifics of how I train. I'll emulate my breakfast ritual again next time, as that seemed to work well. I'll shift now to training exclusively with Gatorade Endurance Formula, since that's on-course at Ironman. I feel slightly ahead of schedule, and encouraged through this race by the efforts put in with such a focus on running during my base and off-season training.

A couple of shout-outs: Ben and Sara finished together, crossing the finish line hand-in-hand (which I thought was cool), in 2:34:42. Whoohoo!!!! And our friend Alison is, as we speak, running the Boston Marathon. I have my cell phone accepting text updates of her progress throughout the day, so hopefully she does well! Finally, thanks to Amy and her parents for waking up early to come up and support me during the race - I never know if these things are fun for spectators or just hot and boring or what. And thanks to Mike for cheering me on, snapping the race report photos, and driving us all down in the Official Team Car Hummer H2!


Michael Anderson said...

Congratulations on a smooth race, dude!!

I like how those pictures post too.

Todd said...

Bravo!! Congrats on sticking to the plan and not slowing down. I love the one picture with you and some other random people in the back ground who are clearly struggling, meanwhile you have a stone cold look on your face like you could run forever.

PS, you have really nice calves...

Patric said...

2 things come to mind for me after reading this. First, YOU DRANK COFFEE!!!! Arent you the person who once wrote a song about your hatred for coffee and then performed it at the ever wonderful New Union and got yelled at for doing it? Whats next in your crazy life, eating MAYO!!! Secondly, do you shave your legs? because in the pictures they look shaven, just wondering. Conrats on the great race time in the Half Marathon, wish I could have been there to watch it.

xt4 said...

Ah yes. I drank some coffee. I didn't say I liked it, but I drank it. Plus that Turtle Mocha thing is so loaded up with caramel and crap that it tastes like a liquidy candy bar. If, however, they came up with hard evidence that Mayo will improve Ironman performance...I still wouldn't eat it.

And ever observant, yes Patric, I stand with freshly shorn legs. To the disdain of my extended family, who doesn't get it, and to Amy, who says all that time that I'm prickly. Many triathletes shave their legs to avoid problems and infections from road rash when they go down on the bike, or to feel faster in the water, or to feel less hot on the run. I shave them because I enjoy the silky smooth sensation, and I like singing "If you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts" in the shower. FYI.

Anonymous said...

WOOO WHOOO Way to Go Chris!! Awesome report. You kicked some butt... I applaud you on keeping to your race strategy and not veering off course and going all out!! A job well done. Nice pics too.. They are Kewl. What is the half that you are doing in June?